After years of medical school and residency, there is still one thing I am desperately trying to learn as a pediatrician. I can’t find it in textbooks. It rarely comes up in my conversations with colleagues. And the great big world of Google does not have much to say.
How can I offer my patients strength for each day?
You see, I work part-time. To be specific, I work two days a week. The rest of the week I am home with the kids. Some may say this suggests a lack of commitment to being a pediatrician and to my career. I have grown tired of explaining myself, so I don’t any more.
However, with just two days wearing my doctor hat, each patient encounter matters that much more to me. Whether I’m able to connect with each family. How much they trust me. Whether or not I’ve been able to help them. Everything is magnified because I want to make all the difference in the world within that very short time frame.
Perhaps it’s not possible. Foolish idealism. Childish some would say, to think that you could succeed in a career that typically demands your all (or so I’ve been told throughout my years in training). But foolish and idealistic is what I am, and so I try.
Which is why I ask over and over: How can I offer my patients strength for each day?
Because that is what families need. At the start of each day, to the end of each day, and starting all over again. Strength to make ends meet. Strength to fight illness, and also to let go. Strength to mend marriages and family life. Strength to simply be parents, day in, day out, without respite.
Knowledge and diagnostic skills are critical in medical care. But more often than not, it is the daily battles and smaller blips of life that wear down a family and destroy the heart. It can be insidious. Unlike the portrayal in House or ER, there is no adrenaline rush of a brilliant diagnosis and lifesaving feat. Just fatigue, worry, stress, hopelessness, and the palpable discomfort of not having any easy answers.
I wish I could write a prescription for poverty. I wish I could test and treat for injustice. I wish I could put in a referral for opportunity and just another chance.
Instead, I write prescriptions for medications. I offer advice. I give bad news. Sometimes good news. I give hugs and handshakes. An occasional hand on the shoulder. I try to be as genuine as possible in that short ten or fifteen minutes I have with a family.
Our community health center closes at 5:30pm. I grab my things and rush home. I arrive home just in time for the lunacy of dinner with two toddlers bouncing off the walls and pasta thrown all over the kitchen floor. Then it’s water all over the bathroom floor as they splash around in the tub. Then it’s me dozing off during bedtime stories. And then, with relief, all is quiet.
As I lay in bed, I contemplate the day. Patients come to mind. Aspects of their lives have left a throbbing ache in my heart as I feel both guilt and gratitude for the immense blessing of my children’s health. Dissatisfaction lingers with still having no answer to how I can offer strength for the things my patients have to face.
I think about the little details that aren’t necessarily explained in the patient’s chart. The exhaustion on a mom’s face. The fear in a young girl’s eyes when I tried to explain what renal failure means. The tears and self-hatred visible on the face of a teenager who already weighs 500 pounds. The flat disconnect between a mother and her very difficult special needs child, because the journey has just been too much.
The fact is, some of my patients do already demonstrate incredible strength. I am in awe of them. I am inspired by them. But even the seemingly strong have a breaking point. Everybody does. At those times, I really wish I could offer more. What that is, I don’t know. I guess I wish I could be something more for them than just a doctor.
In the meantime, I pray. People balk at the idea of prayer. They roll their eyes. Prayer is for the weak. But you know what, I am weak. And my patients are weak too. The practice of medicine is about human beings, not just strength and solutions. Recognizing our weaknesses brings about a different kind of strength and perspective, one that is not quantifiable by randomized controlled studies and statistical analysis. So I pray my heart out, because that is what my heart knows how to do best. I pray for my patients and their families. I pray for myself and my role as both mother and pediatrician. I pray because there is a realm of living that scientific medicine simply does not touch.